Solo 24 medical practitioners received direct assistance to come to Australia under a travel program announced by the Morrison government which promised to bring an extra 2,000 doctors and nurses into the country.
As Australia faces skills shortages across the health and aged care sectors, information obtained from the Department of Salute shows that a program set up by the former health minister Greg Hunt in October last year that promised to bring in an extra 2,000 health practitioners over six months was discontinued after just two months.
At the time of the announcement, Hunt said the scheme would allow 2,000 extra doctors and nurses to sidestep travel restrictions to secure flights and take up hospital jobs as part of the government’s pandemic response in a “one-off boost” to the system.
But according to the Department of Health, appena 24 health practitioners received direct travel assistance, with the lifting of border restrictions allowing practitioners to travel “without the need for Australian government assistance”.
“The former Morrison government, in collaboration with state and territory governments, established a travel assistance program to provide support in arranging visas, travel and quarantine for practitioners and their immediate family. The program commenced in late October 2021 and ceased on 31 December 2021,” a spokesperson for the department said.
"Fortunatamente, most state and territory borders were opened and hotel quarantine arrangements removed around the time the program commenced. This enabled most practitioners to travel without the need for Australian government assistance.
“A total of 24 health practitioners received direct flight assistance through the program and arrived in Australia with employment in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.”
Under the travel assistance program, the federal government provided advice and assistance to states and territories with visa processing, travel exemptions, quarantine arrangements and travel assistance for their employees to migrate to Australia.
It directly supported practitioners and their families, who were already at the final stage of registration, with flight assistance, visa processing, travel exemptions, and quarantine arrangements.
The department said that during the period of operation of the program, 1,761 medical practitioners, 609 nurses and 33 midwives came to Australia, “many to take up roles with state and territory governments”. It is understood that this was unrelated to the government’s assistance program.
According to the Australian Medical Association, Australia’s health workforce is short many thousands of workers, with the association calling for a boost to skilled migration to try to address the shortages, which have been exacerbated by a workforce burnt out by the Covid pandemic.
The new health minister, Mark Butler, said that while the decision had been announced with “great fanfare” by the previous government, “nothing came of that”.
"Così [we need] some more delivery, a bit less of the announcement you saw under the former government,” Butler said.
Butler has also said he wants to address any visa backlog in the immigration system that may be holding up skilled workers from entering the country, while also looking to speed up the skills accreditation process.
State and territory health ministers will meet with Butler this Friday, with the issue of hospital resourcing and workforce issues likely to be on the agenda.
The federal government will also begin negotiations with the states on the locations of their new urgent care clinics, which are designed to take pressure off stretched emergency departments.